Life Begins: The Birth of the Late, Great Picture Magazine

It took a while for inventions like the electric light bulb, vinegar, the toothbrush, and the horseless carriage to catch on, but within hours of its first appearance, Henry Luce’s Life magazine was a popular success. Here is the story of its birth and of the people who conceived it.

The founder himself, addressing his lawyer in 1941 about a suit alleging that he, Henry R. Luce, and Time Inc. had stolen, actually stolen, the idea for Life, wrote in some impatience: “Don’t you see—what you have to establish is that there is no such thing as an ‘idea’—that there are only a thousand ideas, feelings, theories, practical considerations, experiments, hunches, etc. & etc.—and nothing valuable happens until all these thousand stream-ofconsciousness rivulets get linked up in a living entity—a river in an established rivercourse?

“I didn’t get ‘the idea’ sitting on a mountain. Nor did I steal it. There was nothing to steal. I had dozens of ideas—on mountains and elsewhere. . . . So did a lot of other people who worked here or who talked with us. . . . Eventually came the determination to do something—or to try to do it. We tried and we did.”

In his characteristic staccato, Luce told an interviewer many years later: “Everybody who went to ‘21’ and his brother, or less expensive restaurants, in the journalistic or even any allied trade, said, ‘Oh, well, there ought to be a picture magazine . . . Anybody could make a million dollars or ten million dollars with a picture magazine.’ ”

Looking back over the available evidence, it does seem clear that various ideas about possible picture magazines were current among American publishers in those Depression years of the early thirties. In fact, in May of 1931, more than five years before Luce’s Life got started, Clare Boothe Brokaw, a young editor at Vanity Fair, wrote her publisher, Condé Nast, about a notion she had for such a magazine. And she even had a name for it, a name that was then carried by a respected but floundering humor journal of the period. “There is a rumor that Life is now for sale,” Mrs. Brokaw wrote Nast in this memo. “I do not know what the figure is, but I presume that it is fairly cheap, as Life has been slowly dying for some years.”

“Of course, I know,” continued Mrs. Brokaw modestly, “that this is probably a presumptuous suggestion on my part, and, in these depressed times, it is apt to seem an absurd one, but if the Condé Nast Publications were to consider buying Life, I can suggest a new editorial formula for it which I dare to believe would make the magazine a success.

“I should like to pattern an American magazine— and one bearing the title Life is admirably adapted to its contents—after the Parisian Vu. It would be a weekly, and would contain some of the editorial elements of Time, Fortune, and even Vanity Fair, plus its own special angle, which would be reporting, not all the news nor, necessarily, the most important news, but the most interesting and exciting news, in photographs, and interpreting it editorially through accompanying articles by capable writers and journalists.”

In 1934 Mrs. Brokaw told Henry Luce about her idea at a dinner party where they met for the first time. Possibly she said, as she had stated in her memo to Nast, that “the editorial point of view should be light but not frivolous, satirical but not bitter,” and that such a magazine would have a broad appeal, attracting “Theodore Dreiser as much as the reader of the Daily Mirror.” Luce, who another woman recalled had the worst naturally bad manners of any man she’d ever met, was not uninterested. In fact, he must have found it fascinating; he had already set up a special department to look into the possibilities of starting such a picture journal at Time Inc. And it is at least plausible that he found the young woman as striking for her beauty as for her imagination.

At their second meeting some months later, Luce drew her aside. “All right,” he said, in typical fashion offering a problem instead of polite conversation, “so you have a magazine—a picture magazine. You’re publishing in New York City. The Emperor of Japan dies, and you have to go to press within a week. What are you going to do about that?”

Mrs. Brokaw was not easily intimidated by rude men with vaulting eyebrows and rapid-fire patterns of speech. “Well, you know, Mr. Luce,” she replied, “I should think anyone like yourself would have complete access to the best photographers in Japan. Make a contract with them, and buy first magazine rights from all the photographic syndicates.”

“That solves the problem,” he said dubiously, “if you can get the pictures from Japan on time.”

“I don’t know why that problem worries you,” she said. “Because if you can’t get it from Japan, I don’t think anybody can.”

At this point Luce suddenly pulled out his watch— “the turnip watch,” she called it later—and announced: “Time to go. Good night.” Then she knew that this annoying fellow was rude, although she recalled with affection years later that “he was always a master of the abrupt exit.”

In any event, their talk about a picture magazine led to an intercontinental courtship, and, as all devotees of American romance in high places know, Luce got divorced from his first wife to marry Clare Boothe Brokaw in 1935, about a year before his Life began. At the time of their wedding, the new Mrs. Luce was thirty-two and her husband was thirty-seven, with a tremendous publishing success in hand and unabashed ambition for more.

Surely it was Luce’s success with Time that made him the logical publisher of a magazine like Life. He clearly had a way with risks. With Yale classmate-friend-rival Briton Hadden (who many thought was the ranking genius of the two), he had started Time in 1923 on a small initial capitalization of $86 thousand. In its first years a lot of people considered Time a shallow gossip sheet whose rewritten gleanings from other sources wouldn’t catch on. But by the early thirties, with Hadden shockingly dead at the age of thirty-one and Luce in unchallenged command, Time had become an established and profitable national weekly with a circulation of almost half a million. Luce himself was a man of growing power and influence.

The rising tycoon kept adding to his reputation as an innovator. Early in the Depression, in 1930, after modestly predicting that his latest idea would become “a national institution,” he started Fortune, a qualitypaper, high-priced ($1.00) monthly for businessmen. In 1931 he launched The March of Time, a weekly radio dramatization of the news (which was actually created as promotion for Time by Luce’s brilliant righthand man, Ray Larsen), and in 1935 a monthly filmed version of The March of Time, its sound track echoing with the doom-filled voice of Westbrook Van Voorhees, began appearing in theaters around the country. But there had to be more. The ever restless Luce, born and raised in China where his father had been a Presbyterian missionary, a young man whose Hotchkiss schoolmates had called him “Chink” until he stopped it with his fists, a man who’d once said he wished he had had an American boyhood and come from Oskaloosa, Iowa, was always on the prowl for new projects in a communications field whose opportunities seemed literally endless.

To explore these possibilities he set up a small experimental department in 1933 which would “sift through an accumulation of ideas about ‘WHAT TO DO NEXT.’ ” Luce had already demonstrated his own fascination with photographs. Pictures and the flip captions under them had become a trademark of Time, almost as noted as the backward-running sentences. “Captions to suit the human mug,” Luce called them, and the writers tried to suit the circumstances, too. For example, the caption under two pictures of a Chicago socialite who failed to appear at a big tea read: “She reigns but she did not pour.” And photographs, of course, were absolutely essential to Luce’s grand vision for Fortune.

To make Fortune beautiful, he had acquired the services of Margaret Bourke-White, a driving, singlepurposed genius who, though still in her twenties, was well known as an industrial photographer, and who went on to become one of the most extraordinary photographers of the century. In a book she wrote years later, Bourke-White recalled her first meeting with Luce and the ideas he had about how pictures should be used in his new magazine. “The camera,” she recalled him saying, “should explore every corner of industry, showing everything . . . from the steam shovel to the board of directors. The camera would act as interpreter, recording what modern industrial civilization is, how it looks, how it meshes. . . .”

Luce’s plans for the camera were not always that loftily stated. On another occasion he said: “Today I may not be in a mood nor feel the need to read the finest article about the Prime Minister. But I will stop to watch him take off his shoe.” No matter how he expressed it, Luce was developing a growing preoccupation with what he called “picture-magic.” He recognized—and so did a lot of other people of the period— the potential for great journalistic power that photography held, and Luce was always hungry for that power.

The experimental department had only three people assigned to it: a writer and a researcher from Fortune, and an editor from Time. The researcher was a young woman named Natasha von Hoershelman, and the writer was Dwight Macdonald, a Yale graduate like many of the promising junior men on the premises in those days. The Time editor was John S. Martin, one of the earliest staff members of Time and now its managing editor, a bright and testy man who had lost his left arm in a boyhood hunting accident. Martin was also a cousin of Time’s cofounder, Briton Hadden, and there is no question that this kinship made a difference to Henry Luce, who handled this talented and difficult relative of his dead partner with a gingerly solicitude he didn’t often show others. And there were real problems with Martin. Like many journalists, he liked to drink and he drank too much. A man of quick humor and sensible judgment when he was sober, Martin was something of a show-off (who once shot a falcon from his office window) and a verbal bully when he was drunk. In Martin’s place at Time during this period, Luce put John Shaw Billings, a far more reliable man (though he seethed with private angers) and a tough magazine journalist who would three years later be suddenly taken from Time and made the managing editor of Life, only days before the publication of its first issue.

Luce was serious about the experiments, especially those concerned with the picture magazine. Records of the time show that the group immediately began exploring sources for stories that might be told in pictures. In late 1933, Macdonald wrote to the director of the Field Museum in Chicago: “We are planning a new magazine, to consist mostly of photographs. News interest will predominate, but there will also be special departments and features. It has occurred to us that an excellent regular feature might be a survey of what is being done in the way of archaeological, anthropological and natural history exploration. We would try, by means of well-selected photographs and informative captions, to keep our readers informed as to current progress in those fields.” The letter, touching subjects that would become regular preoccupations of Life during its whole run, went on to ask the museum’s plans for the immediate future and how the experimental department could get pictures of the work.

Of course photographers were sought out, too, and Macdonald, who had submitted a dummy for a picture magazine to Luce in 1932, did much of the contacting. He wrote the already famous Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris to tell him about “our new magazine . . . still in the formative stage.” Macdonald, with a strong interest in photography and early ambitions to become a movie director, wanted to assign Cartier-Bresson to do some work for one of the dummy issues they were preparing and suggested that he photograph “some such event as the Passion Play in Oberammergau.” Cartier-Bresson sent in a set of pictures and was later requested to take more, this time of the Tour de France, a marathon bike race. But he couldn’t do the job because of other work.

Some years later John Martin recalled the general setup of the experimental department and the way it worked. “We had a certain amount of talent in the office, talent for taking pictures, for editing pictures, selecting them, for layout, for caption writing, and that talent was combed over and certain individuals were assigned to me to make trial pages within various whole patterns of a magazine . . . .”

They tried all sorts of formulas. “We might do a picture magazine this way,” Martin continued, “and we might do a picture magazine that way; we might make it this size and we might stress pictures or we might stress text^we were playing with a variety of ideas all having to do with picture reportage.”

Then Martin spoke of a matter that would be of continuing concern to most future Life photographers, editors, and reporters: looking for ways to win the confidence of the subjects of picture stories. “We were planning,” Martin went on. “to develop [the] idea of the candid camera, and that meant you had to get right into people’s boudoirs and offices and take pictures of them in action, and to do that you had to learn how to approach people, how to handle them, how to kid them into being candid, candidly cameraed.” Candidly cameraed. The way Martin put it, it sounded like a form of photographic seduction, and it often was. Such seduction is a commonplace of these times, especially by the more revealing eye of the television camera. But in the thirties, the mildest sort of photographic invasion of privacy seemed a considerable accomplishment.

As an example of this, Martin spoke of a set of pictures called “Candid Week-End in Connecticut” which appeared in a pre-Life dummy. Many of the photographs were taken at the homes of composer Deems Taylor and writer Quentin Reynolds, and except for the fact that Taylor and some of his companions were well known (actor Roland Young, The New Yorker editor Harold Ross, columnists Westbrook Pegler and Heywood Broun), it looks now like a quite ordinary affair, the kind of thing one sees through stifled yawns in an aunt’s scrapbook. But Martin’s comments about it accurately reflect the enthusiasm of that earlier moment.

“This illustrates,” he said, “our experimenting in the technique of sending a cameraman where no ordinary cameraman would go. . . . [He] would be admitted into the bosom of family and friends. And they proceeded to cavort and carry on as they did normally and Russell Aikins made pictures all through the weekend and Lois Long went with him to record the events, writing notes and taking captions.” Wonder of wonders, here, quite possibly, was a photographic first, at the very least a rather lumbering forerunner of what became a regular feature, known as “Life Goes to a Party.”

Martin’s group did several dry runs of the project and experimented with various styles of layout and typography. Luce, who kept a close eye on the work of the experimental department, apparently thought of the picture magazine as something of a simpleminded alternative to Time. In what he called an apology “to be read before looking at Dummy No. 3,” he wrote: “It would be partly for people who just find it too hard going to read Time every week cover to cover. And it also has a place because, though I’m continually against it, Time has developed an innate tendency to go more and more specialist; it is less and less willing to be simple and naive and to tackle these subjects in a broad perspective.”

So, at that point, he thought the picture magazine should reflect a certain open ingenuousness, and the content of another apology to be read after looking at the dummy offered some specifics. In his comments on a gossip section called “Private Lives,” he mentioned three tabloid columnists of the time to make his point. “My notion here,” he wrote, “is a combination of very human and snob appeals. A sort of cross between Dorothy Dix (much concerned with consideration of life’s problems) and Cholly Knickerbocker (very knowing about the snobs). (But hardly any Walter Winchell.) Captions to satisfy brief passing curiosity, but people would be expected to read the Dix—Knickerbocker article—at first laughing at it and razzing it, eventually admitting they do read it.” Among Luce’s other gifts, clearly, was a quite un-Presbyterian talent for titillation.

But in less than a year Luce suddenly broke off the work of the experimental department. “I felt that the thinking and creative imagination . . . had run into a dead end,” he said later. “I was very dissatisfied with the whole procedure . . . thought that we just got off on the wrong track and . . . that the best thing that could be done would be just to forget the whole thing, at least for the time being.” The project was abandoned, Martin went back to Time, the others to Fortune, and Luce took a trip to Europe. As far as new projects went, he ordered that work be speeded up on getting The March of Time on film. Over the next year, this exploration with moving pictures would contribute a lot to the eventual start-up of Life.

There were other reasons for temporarily dropping the magazine project. For one very important thing, there was the problem of quality reproduction of photographs at a plausible cost. Production techniques were simply not available then to turn out illustrated pages good enough and fast enough and in the great quantity that Luce and his colleagues projected for the picture magazine. The kinds of coated paper and rotary presses necessary for the job had not been developed, and it was to take extraordinary effort and inventiveness in the next two years to crash them into workable existence.

Perhaps more important, the picture magazine needed a special guiding genius of its own to get started. Martin was not the man. And Luce himself was spread too thin, his mind racing from one problem to another, his ambitions leaping far ahead of the moment.

The man for the job turned out to be Daniel Longwell, a fidgety, rather short, patricianlooking fellow of thirty-five when he came to Time Inc. in 1934, a graduate of Columbia who worked many years at the publishing house of Doubleday, Doran, where his special interest was producing handsome illustrated books. Longwell, a Nebraskan always proud of his Middle West roots, was just what the situation needed, a bright, single-minded man who was fascinated with photographs, bursting with ideas for their journalistic uses, and utterly obsessed with the notion that the time was at hand to publish a newsweekly full of pictures.

When he had come to work for Luce, Longwell had buzzed around what was then a small company in a number of jobs. To get him more involved in regular production, and to increase the picture emphasis on his favorite magazine, Time, Luce had made him a special assistant to John Shaw Billings, who with Martin was co-managing editor of Time. A Harvard man, Billings had come to Time in 1929 from the Brooklyn Eagle and a job as Time’s stringer correspondent in Washington, where his predecessor had been Henry Cabot Lodge. Billings had no special interest in pictures before he started running Life, and he had no pretensions about journalism, which he once described as “an honorable trade with a certain discipline, but . . . certainly not a profession.” His solid stability, his energy, and his self-discipline were a good complement to Longwell’s skittery mix of talent and enthusiasm.

With Longwell at work the number of pictures in Time, especially those arranged in what could be called picture stories, increased, and the style began to change, too. Longwell was greatly impressed by the candid camera techniques used by advertisers (he said later that Life “came right out of the advertising world of the U.S.”), and he started to look for photographers who used the miniature cameras.

One such man was Thomas D. McAvoy, a thirtyyear-old news photographer working in Washington, and he sent Time some extraordinary pictures showing President Roosevelt at work in his office. The President was, in fact, signing the Brazilian Trade Agreement, and as the pictures showed, he was also reading a letter, furrowing his brow, drinking a glass of water, getting whispered to by his secretary, and smoking. The pictures ran for three pages in Time and were a sensation. McAvoy, described as a man whose “ideal is to photograph things that you see but the camera can’t,” and as “diffident and devoid of the usual photographer’s brashness,” became instantly notorious among the Washington press, and his coup greatly boosted the growing interest in small cameras around the country.

There were less favorable reactions. President Roosevelt, who at first had been amused by the informal results of candid photography, quickly developed some serious reservations about it. A memo written by Longwell shortly after publication of McAvoy’s pictures described the problem. “At the opening ball game the other day,” Longwell wrote, “the President was eating peanuts. He saw a cameraman over at one side, so he tried to hide behind one arm while he popped a peanut in his mouth. The cameraman waited and got him with one going straight into his mouth. The White House was besieged with letters the next day saying it wasn’t dignified for the President to eat peanuts. So last Sunday night Steve Early passed the word on to the cameramen, just before the fireside broadcast, that there weren’t to be any more candid camera pictures of the President.”

Longwell, of course, was enchanted with the kind of enterprise shown by McAvoy (as was his young assistant Joseph Thorndike, who twelve years later became Life’s third managing editor). It was a use of photography that promised new and revealing sources of drama, and Longwell, like a long succession of picture journalists after him, was particularly delighted by photographs which showed famous people doing ordinary or, better, ridiculous things. Another picture which pleased him at the time was taken by a young free-lance photographer from California named Peter Stackpole. This one showed former President Herbert Hoover obviously fast asleep on the outdoor speakers’ platform during a speech by Labor Secretary Frances Perkins. Longwell began to use McAvoy and Stackpole regularly on picture assignments for Time.

In his work with pictures and picture layouts, Longwell soon had the help of a German journalist who would eventually play an extraordinary if minor role in the shaping of Life. This was Kurt Korff, a refugee from Germany who had been head of the German publishing house of Ullstein and editor of its BerlinerIllustrirte Zeitung. Hired as a special consultant at $5000 a year, and his presence quite literally kept secret from most of the staff, Korff helped Longwell to find picture sources and recommended photographers. One he recommended was Alfred Eisenstaedt, a tiny, stiff-backed, furiously energetic man who had been a private in the German Army during World War I but who in 1935 was a refugee from the Nazis. Eisenstaedt, of course, was already well known in Europe. He, Bourke-White, McAvoy, and Stackpole would be the original Life photographers.

However much Longwell was involved with increasing the number of photographs in Time and with changing their emphasis, his main concern was to get Luce going on a picture magazine. His sense of urgency increased in the summer of 1935 when he took a trip abroad to promote and launch The March of Time in England. He used the opportunity to visit people involved with picture journals in both England and France. “I spent considerable time with Paris Soir,” he recalled, “and with Lord Beaverbrook and his colleagues who were also doing a remarkable job of picture improvements in the Daily Express. Lord Southwood of Odham’s Press had a picture magazine called Weekly Illustrated that with no effort at all was selling very well indeed. ... I made tentative informal deals with several British publishers to secure their pictures when we got around to starting a picture magazine. I had no direct authority from Luce to do any of this. . . .”

When he got back home in September, Longwell, after a meeting with Luce, ripped off one of his punchy memos. In part it read:

“Here is the gist of what I said yesterday morning.

“In our immediate program I suggest we include the picture magazine. The reasons are:

“A war, any sort of war, is going to be natural promotion for a picture magazine. The history of European illustrated magazines bears that out.

“Furthermore, a picture magazine is long overdue in this country, has been held back by big companies retrenching, but now, with things going up and the profit tax stimulating advertising, this magazine is going to happen—just as Time, The New Yorker, Daily News, etc., did in the 1920s. . . .

“I suggest #1 thing on our program is to get estimates, get a skeleton organization started, get ready. If the Italians march into Ethiopia, and if eight days later we can have a magazine on the stands, it ought to sell 100,000.

“I suggest the magazine be launched that way, as a surprise attack, that we don’t promote it all over the place, simply say here’s news that can be told in pictures, we make no commitments—we’ll keep it up as long as we have pictorial news. . . .

“Isn’t this worth a discussion and decision?”

The Italians did march into Ethiopia shortly afterward, but Longwell’s sense of urgency apparently didn’t make much of a dent on Luce. He was too much involved with other matters. He was soon going to marry the beautiful Mrs. Brokaw. Pursuing her had taken a lot of his time, and she reported later that he had made her an interesting offer in the course of his suit. “I don’t think Time Inc. wants any new babies,” she recalled that he said. “But if you and I get married I will start the picture magazine and you can be coeditor.”

They were married on November 23, 1935, and went to Cuba for an extended honeymoon. But not before a play of the bride’s called Abide with Me had opened on Broadway to terrible reviews. Naturally this caused something of a problem at Time. The problem, Managing Editor John Shaw Billings noted in his diary, was to prepare a review that reflected “the proper degree of innocuousness.” Such was finally accomplished when the bridal couple collaborated on a revision of the reviewer’s copy that, in the words of Time Inc. historian, Robert T. Elson, “combined mild censure with faint praise.” The new Mrs. Luce had been properly introduced to group journalism and its power to fudge.

But before Luce had gone south, Longwell had successfully urged him to set up a new experimental department, whose purpose was, according to a memo of Longwell’s, to “learn all we can about photos . . . sign up important U.S. and foreign cameramen on options . . . explore picture sources.”

While he was waiting for Luce to return from his honeymoon, Longwell produced the dummy of a sixteen-page picture supplement, ostensibly to show the dramatic possibilities of the use of such a substantial picture section in Time. But this must also have been something of a cover for Longwell’s bigger ideas. He arranged to have the dummy sent to Luce in Cuba, and it excited Luce about the prospect of a picture magazine in a way that nothing else had. Luce’s new wife, with her own interest in it, certainly pushed matters along.

Luce didn’t want to do the Time supplement, he wrote. What he did feel strongly, according to Longwell, was that “we must go ahead and publish a picture magazine—big pictures, beautiful pictures, exciting pictures, pictures from all over the world, pictures of interesting people and lots of babies. It was the first definition of Life.” In an entry written in February 1936, just nine months before Life’s first issue appeared, the compulsive diarist Billings commented on the boss’s powerful enthusiasm. “The next day Luce came prancing into my office and cried, ‘I’m pregnant!’ That is, with ideas for his picture magazine.”

Luce’s notes for a draft prospectus in mid-1936 reflected little doubt about his current obsession. The point he most emphasized was one that publishers might be expected to avoid—or even deny. People just like to look through magazines, he said, and “there ought to be one magazine which is outstandingly the best magazine for look-through purposes. Unless it be Esquire, I know of no magazine which was ever designed to capture and occupy the position of No. I look-through magazine of America.

. . . But Esquire—does Esquire boast about its tinted fornications? Certainly not—it is trying desperately to sell the works of Mr. Ernest Hemingway and other penmen. Now the Picture Magazine (in addition to all I have said about serious information) will, of course, immediately try to make itself and can, I think, announce itself as the damnedest best non-pornographic lookthrough magazine in the United States.”

“If this comes anywhere near being true,” Luce wrote, forecasting a sales pitch that would be Life’s for more than thirty years to come, “the Picture Magazine will have at least ten lookers-through per copy. And this gives us a clue to the advertising problem. ... It may be the answer to a lot of whatever ails magazine advertising today. ... It isn’t a good show. Let the Picture Magazine advertisers put on a good show. Let them compete photographically with the editorial [content]. If we had 40 pages of striking photographic ads plus 40 pages of editorial photos, then there could be little doubt that the reader was getting a remarkable package of photographs for his dime.”

Preoccupation with that sum of money led to the magazine’s being named just that in the draft prospectus. Dime, it was called, and its center-ring subtitle was “The Show-Book of the World.” The name immediately became a subject of company controversy. “Dime simply gives me the loud jitters,” wrote a subscription executive. “One of the worst bugbears of subscription handling is the illegible writing of most people. We can now pick out the word Time without much difficulty, but when that is complicated by deciding whether it is Time or Dime, we will all be dizzy . . .” “I don’t like Dime,” said another, adding cogently, “After all, you may want to change the price some time. . . .If people like to look why not call the magazine Look?” Of the lop men at Time Inc., only Roy Larsen liked it. “It gives another meaning to a most common word,” he gave as one among his reasons. “But I am probably crazy. It just strikes me as crazy enough to make sense. . . .” In spite of Larsen’s reputation as a promotion expert who knew when things could be profitably crazy, the name was dropped within weeks.

The language of this first prospectus was, by the standards of the genre, restrained and to the point. It listed specifications (“Size: Approximately that of the Illustrated London News.” “Quality: Shiny (coated) paper, much better than Time’s, not quite as good as that of the most expensive magazines.” “Contents: A bigger and better collection of current news photographs than is available in all the current event magazines plus all the Sunday gravure supplements combined”).

Barely pausing for breath, the prospectus hurtled along into a more detailed description of its specific content—The Big News-Picture Story of the Week, Dime’s Own Big Special Feature (suggested subjects: Yale, Cancer, Greta Garbo, the Dust Bowl), The Second, Third and Fourth Best News-Picture Story of the Week, Great Photographs Which You Will Never Forget, A Biography. “Each week,” the reader of the prospectus was advised, “Dime will take some outstanding character, hero or villain, in politics, sports or art, and show him to you from childhood to now; show you his face in many moods, his figure clothed and if possible nude; show him with background of home, office, tools, friends—so that you shall have seen him without, Dime hopes, any possibility of ever forgetting. . . . While Dime’s viewers will usually know what to expect, they are never quite sure they won’t get a whacking surprise.”

Possibly the biggest surprise in this prospectus is the modesty of the financial projections. And they were presented with a joking prediction that Luce and his colleagues might better have taken seriously. In fact, a substantial fortune was lost because they didn’t believe it could happen. “It is easy to imagine how millions can be made out of Dime,” the prospectus read. “Since it is by far the biggest and best package of pictures for the money and since ‘everybody’ likes to look at pictures, it will achieve millions of circulation and, having achieved five or ten million circulation, it will be the most potent advertising medium in the United States. Result: profits sufficient to pay off the national debt.

“But alas, short of this dream bonanza, it is difficult to find a logical profit formula. Truth is that Dime is not an investment—or even a speculation—which is likely to appeal to an unimaginative Scotsman.” A budget was included for the board’s study, and its unimpressive projection was that with a circulation of 500,000 and a turnover of $3 million, the magazine would just be breaking even. The problem, of course, was the ten-cent selling price for a product that was expensive to produce. Normal publishing practice indicated the need for a higher price, but Luce wanted to keep it down within reach of the broad audience he felt sure was fascinated with pictures.

But apparently no one who mattered really expected that Dime would quickly find that broad audience. The modest publishing plan called for the magazine to start in the late fall of 1936 with a circulation base of 200,000 for 1937, and an advertising sales goal of 1000 pages for the year. “Investment in 1936,” the prospectus closed, “will be between $250,000 and $400,000. If all goes well. Dime must drive on to bigger circulation which will require an additional $300,000. If things do not go well, the $300,000 will be needed for repair and for retreat purposes. This comes to a total of $700,000 indicated outlay. Add to that another $300,000 for bad (or good) luck and it can be safely assumed that $1,000,000 will see Dime safely through to a breakeven 500,000 circulation or to an honorable grave.” With understandable apprehension that the latter might be the early result of their action, the directors gave their approval.

The prospectus (which eventually began, “To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events . . .”) underwent more changes before it was completed in the next few weeks. Most of them were made by Luce and involved refining the language. The name Dime disappeared; “The Show-Book of the World” remained—with a footnote saying the actual title of the magazine would appear on Volume I, Number 1.

Work went ahead on more dummies as the makers of the new magazine tried to sort out matters of style, pace, and format. An engaging sense of innocence dominated the experiments. And the editors produced some terrible stuff along with the better material. They were creating a magazine as they went along, and they were not hampered by precedents, by any choking sense of tradition, by feelings of heavy professional responsibility, by questions of taste. It was a free-floating adventure, exciting, hectic, and offering new combinations of trial and error and reward every day. The foreword to one dummy produced in mid-1936 read: “Ahead of you lie 40 pages of pictures selected by us from 5,000odd pictures that came into existence, or were for the first time available to U.S. magazines during the week of May 18-23.”

Some of the writers were having fun with other material, and the level of the humor shows how playful the editors were ready to be if it would work. One picture showed a large, handsome young woman flexing her muscles. That caption read: “Six foot two in her stocking feet is Lois de Fee, 17, hired last week as Bouncer of Manhattan’s Dizzy Club. Bouncer de Fee hails from Austin, Tex., weighs 184 lbs., likes to bulge her biceps and cry: ‘I’m a good time girl. Clothes, music, lights, dancing, liquor—what else is there when a girl is young?’ ”

Another “act” several pages long dealt with a family of nudists in a San Diego sideshow. “We sent a candid cameraman to report Zoro Gardens,” the accompanying text read, “and the human story behind it. Is his report too strong for your taste? If such things openly exist in the U.S., should this visual magazine avert its eye?” The captions that went with the pictures frolicked heavily, and one next to a picture of a nude woman reading said: “Tanya, 22, gurgles: ‘Our girl friends think we have orgies, but I have never had an orgy yet.’ ” Under a photograph of five nude women skipping rope, the caption read: “In Zoro Gardens the work is not just all posing and strip-teasing. There is also skipping, prancing, tag.” Obviously the working staff thought that was pretty funny stuff.

By midsummer, Luce and his experimenters were ready to go ahead with another dummy, this one actually printed—the others had all been paste-up copies using photostats. A print order of 30,000 copies was run off to “show advertisers and to establish a possible printed style.”

The dummy issue included picture stories by Eisenstaedt (on a steelworker) and Bourke-White (on a high jumper), stories about preparations in England for possible war, about the movie Mary of Scotland starring Katharine Hepburn, about the busy and stylish life of the beauty business’s Elizabeth Arden, about the tallest boy in the world (8 feet 5 inches) and the longest baby in the world (24.5 inches), and a series of color photographs of paintings depicting the life of Christ. It was not the subject of universal acclaim among its readers. “It was a complete flop, as far as we were concerned,” Longwell recalled. Only 3000 copies were distributed. Still, advertisers were generally interested, though some commented that there was too much writing and that the tone (there were no pictures of nudes in this issue) was too “highbrow.” Luce’s general manager, Ralph Ingersoll, who was known among his not always admiring Time Inc. colleagues as “the memo marathon,” churned out a memo for Luce on the sum of the criticism. “Without equivocation,” Ingersoll wrote, “laymen thought Dummy No. 1 swell, were to a man amazed by the ‘package for a dime,’ interested and excited by the pictures. With many equivocations, the professionals thought: a) the idea swell, b) the dummy confused, but c) confidence in the future of the magazine unshaken after seeing it.” Luce was blunter: “The Dummy was a disappointment.

. . . I hope it proves wc can’t do any worse. . . . We are now setting out to get the job done right.” The advertising group set up originally to sell space in the new picture magazine went at its work with an engaging naiveté much like the editors’. No one really knew for sure just what the product was going to be. It didn’t have a prospectus, rates, or even a name when the first twelve-man sales staff began making the rounds. Nobody knew how big a market the picture magazine would reach or what was the precise nature of that market. Many advertisers, the new salesmen found, had a low regard for pictures: they were used to the content of rotogravure sections. Cheesecake pictures, they thought scornfully, snapshots of babies and dogs, would never hold the readers’ attention long enough to make it worth the advertiser’s dollar. Both Robert Johnson, who was Time Inc.’s vice president in charge of advertising, and George Sadler, who had been moved over from Time to be the new magazine’s advertising manager, thought there was a real problem with the November 1936 start-up schedule as planned, and some believed that the safest way to begin would be as a fortnightly, whose frequency could be changed when the going looked better.

In August, three months before Life appeared, the space rates were set. Advertisers could buy space at a rate of $1500 a page, $800 per half-page, $2500 for a page of inside color. A net circulation of 250,000 was guaranteed. Advertisers with contracts made before the date of the first issue would be protected against increases for a year. This, of course, turned out to be a disastrously generous offering. When Life’s circulation immediately jumped far ahead of its guarantee and kept climbing, the first advertisers wound up with a quite unexpected bargain, and one that hurt Time Inc. badly.

In spite of the skepticism, there was a considerable amount of enthusiasm for the new magazine among many advertising professionals, and by late summer the small staff had sold over $ 1 million worth of space. Sadler sent Luce a list of advertisers who were committed to buy thirty-four pages in the first issue. Luce replied that he thought the list was “fine except for perhaps a little too much liquor,” and added that he “would like to see a few more female advertisements.”

By the time the magazine started, more than 300 advertisers had signed up for space. And significantly, many advertising people saw in this new venture the opportunity to make enormous changes in their own approaches to selling. George Gallup, who was then research director of the Young & Rubicam Agency, wrote his staff that the magazine “will doubtless create a new technique for pictures which an agency like Y and R should learn and be able to adapt for advertising.” Another agency man who bought thirteen spreads of ads for Paramount Pictures said: “We’re going to run you ragged—copy your technique so that you can’t tell ads from editorial pages.” Luce seemed delighted by the challenge, and the growing enthusiasm near the deadline was beginning to make everyone feel, in the recollection of one of Life’s first space salesmen, Harry Dole, “that this was not going to be anything in between—it was either going to be goddamn big or nothing.”

“From now on,” Luce wrote in a memorandum early in September 1936, “we must have an efficient, integrated, editorial organization . . . with special responsibilities definitely assigned. . . . But let the organization think of itself as a crew delegated by Time Inc. to seize an opportunity to do a big job. No one is indispensable; everyone who deserves to be on the crew at all is important.”

“The Managing Editor of the Picture Magazine,” Luce went on, “will be, for an unstated term of months or years, Henry R. Luce. The Alternate Managing Editor will be, for an unstated term, John S. Martin. When and if The Picture Magazine is successfully launched, it is probable that Luce will return to his sinecure as General Editor of Time Inc. publications, leaving Martin as Managing Editor of The Picture Magazine with a new Alternate Managing Editor to be discovered or developed. ... A post of special authority on The Picture Magazine is that of THE PICTURE EDITOR AND OFFICE MANAGER, which will be filled by Daniel Longwell. He will be supremely responsible for the flow of pictures in and out of our offices, including the flow of pictures into the hands of the appropriate editors, through their hands into the magazine-dummy, and out of their hands to the printer. Every picture deal, every nickel spent for pictures, must go through him. He will be the traffic officer for all assignments to photographers and also for the work of the layout men. . . .”

Thus, as the November publication date approached, Luce was serving notice that he was going to keep personal charge of the new project, that Martin would be his second-in-command, and that Longwell would have special and important operational powers. How much Luce knew of any trouble is conjectural, but Martin was turning out to be a serious problem for the people under him on the small staff, especially for Longwell. “Martin couldn’t stand Dan,” a member of the pre-Life staff recalled. “Martin was quick and impatient and cruel when it suited him. Dan was prissy and sensitive and inarticulate and full of ideas and easily hurt. He would shrivel up under Martin’s attack, like a caterpillar if you put a cigarette to it, and he would come out of Martin’s office as if he were compressed. Martin was very pleased.” Martin was also drinking enough to make him unreliable about afternoon appointments, and the group was uneasy about his moods. But Luce, at least at this point, seemed not to see the problem (a strangely selective blindness and deafness frequently did afflict him), or quite possibly Martin’s kinship with Hadden made it particularly hard for Luce to act. But soon, in the clear interests of getting the new magazine out without a badly split leadership, he would have to.

In early October, just a few weeks before the first issue was scheduled, Time Inc’s executive committee met to approve Luce’s proposal that the old Life, a weekly-turned-monthly humor magazine whose circulation had dwindled to 70,000, be purchased “largely for the purpose of acquiring the name Life to use on the New Magazine. ... It was the unanimous opinion of all present that the name was ideal.” On October 7, the deal was completed. Time Inc. acquired the name, assets, and good will of the old Life, which was in its fifty-fourth year of publication. The price was $92,000, and staff members got Time Inc. jobs. Alfred Eisenstaedt heard about the name when he was shooting pictures of beagles with John Martin, who gave him the news. “Well,” recalled Eisenstaedt, “I thought, ‘My God, let me see. Life. Life. Life.’ And after five minutes I liked it. I had just photographed a dog covered with fleas—which was,” he added, “a Life cover later.” Allen Grover, a former Yale man who worked for Luce for forty years, became a Time Inc. vice president, and was one of Luce’s closest confidants, remembered, “He was glowing. ‘Guess what?’ he asked. ‘We’ve got Life.’ He was like a little boy with a new train.”

With little more than two weeks remaining before the first press deadlines, John Shaw Billings made this entry in his diary for October 23, 1936: “At five o’clock, Luce called me to his office, shut the doors, and proceeded to tell me that a great crisis had arisen on Life—a crisis due to Martin’s behavior. Luce and Martin just don’t pull together as a team and, as a result, Life is still badly disorganized and nowhere near ready to go into publication. Martin, said Luce, had contributed little or nothing to the experimental issues, had been off on his own and was just irresponsible. What precipitated the crisis was a Cloud Club lunch today at which Martin had appeared drunk and proceeded to criticize and abuse Luce before staff juniors. It must have been a bad scene. Now Luce wants to put Martin back on Time and make me managing editor of Life. He thinks he and I could work well together and so on.”

“1 was surprised and startled at this proposal,” Billings wrote. “I know nothing of the philosophy of Life and am devoted to Time. . . . I hate to think what Martin will do to the morale of my staff. Yet Life is a new job, with fresh excitement—and much harder work, I suppose. My answer to Luce was: I am ready to do whatever he thought best for the organization. If he wanted me with him, I would come and do my level best. If there was to be a change, it should come at once. Luce is leaving tonight for a weekend in his South Carolina place, where he will think over the decision.”

At this eventful moment in his life, Billings was characteristically honest with himself about his anxiety for the future. “Considerably upset and unsettled in my mind,” he continued in his diary. “I am not picture-minded (Luce says Martin isn’t either). Can I make a go of it? I told F. [his wife, Frederica] and Ma [his mother-in-law] about my talk with Luce. The only feature of it that really interested them was whether my new hours would be longer or shorter. (I thought that was a narrow selfish view of a major change in my work.) I am sorry for Martin who for three years has been a high-paid [$33,000] supernumerary, whose career is being wrecked by liquor—who now may get another chance. I am sorrier still for my staff at whom he will bark and curse and mistreat and bully. But the decision is Luce’s to wreck Time to launch Life.”

From that moment on, for eight years as the magazine’s first managing editor and even after that, when he became editorial director of all the Luce publications, John Shaw Billings held a position of commanding and unchallenged authority at Life. He imposed clarity and order on a muddled beginning; the discipline he applied to himself provided a solid example to the jittery and somewhat bewildered group around him. At thirty-eight he was punctual, fastidious, tough-minded, physically strong, and bore himself with a certain aloofness that served both to scare away unwanted thieves of his time and to make people feel a filial devotion to him.

He was a big man, heavy, with cold blue eyes and a rather jowly, impassive face, and he walked with a slightly duck-footed stride, his head down and his hands often clasped behind his back in the manner of a skater. He could be cruel and icily indifferent when it suited him, and his small kindnesses were treasured by his underlings, who were moved to intense gratitude by his expressions of ordinary sympathy or by a simple invitation to lunch. Proud of his South Carolina ancestry, he seemed a person of quite pervasive formality: he often wore his suit coat while he worked, and he commuted from his uptown Fifth Avenue apartment to the Time-Life offices—first in the Chrysler Building, then in Rockefeller Center—in a chauffeur-driven limousine, usually a Packard.

Only those who knew him very well and had the rank for it called him “John.” To most everyone he was “Mr. Billings,” and many people made a point of not speaking to him at all unless he addressed them first or it was absolutely necessary. “He could have been interested in other people,” recalled Edward K. Thompson, who came to work for Billings in 1937, was a protégé and great admirer of his, and in 1949 became managing editor himself, “but he did a superlative job of hiding it. I would think on an average that a new employee didn’t get spoken to for about a year.” Thompson remembered one new editorial employee who became almost unhinged by Billings’s habit of silence, especially in the elevator where, like Luce, he would not speak, one felt, even if the cable snapped. “This guy would say, ‘Good morning’ to Billings, and he wouldn’t answer,” said Thompson, a man who had his own unapproachable moments. “He became determined to make Billings answer. Billings was fairly predictable, and this guy would wait for him and get in the elevator with him and say, ‘Good morning, Mr. Billings.’ Then when they got off he’d trot up the hall and say it again—‘Good morning, Mr. Billings.’ He got fired shortly thereafter.”

But Billings was not a man who put on any airs about his line of work or believed that it entitled him to any special status. “It always griped me,” he once wrote, “to hear fatheads inflate the importance of journalism and attribute all sorts of high-falutin’ qualities to it I never felt it possessed.” On another occasion someone had spoken to him of “Time’s responsibility to the world in its hour of crisis.” “Lord!” he wrote in disgust. “As managing editor, I make it a point never to consider public opinion or civic duty or any of that kind of twaddle invented to make journalism seem more important than it really is.”

There was one other high-level personnel problem in the days shortly before the new Life appeared, and it might even have been a more difficult one for Luce. Strictly speaking, it was not an office matter at all. The problem involved Luce’s wife and the role she might reasonably play in this latest venture. Here even more than in the Martin matter, Luce acted in a curiously detached way, as if he couldn’t bear to deal firmly with events over which he had, of course, absolute and final control.

Beyond the fact that she was the proprietor’s wife, there were good reasons why Clare Boothe Luce might have been considered a plausible candidate for a big job at Life. At Vanity Fair she had been an editor of real ability and imagination, and she liked to work hard. The new magazine would need experienced women editors. Clare Luce had a long-standing interest in picture magazines and many ideas about them. There is no reason to believe, in fact, that she wasn’t at least as competent to work on Life as anyone there, including the bosses. And then, of course, she had been looking at the paste-ups right along and making her own comments and suggestions about them to Luce. Exactly how much influence she had can only be guessed, but she must have had a lot. She was an extremely bright, articulate, persuasive young woman; she was well informed in areas—culture and the arts, for example—where Luce was a virtual booby; and he was very much dazzled by her, proud of her good looks and brains, very much in love with her.

As Clare Luce described it in an interview with Robert Elson, Luce telephoned her at home one night, just a few weeks before Life started up. “He was giggly and sparkly on the phone,” she remembered. He was calling with news about an invitation for them both. Longwell and Ralph Ingersoll had asked them out for dinner. “Harry said, ‘I think I know what’s coming.’ And I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘They want to offer you a place on the magazine.’ So I said, ‘Oh, that’s wonderful!’ I was very excited about it. We went to dinner at the Voisin, the four of us, and the dinner hadn’t been going on for more than twenty minutes before I knew that that wasn’t what they wanted to say, and I began to get this very uneasy feeling. It was confirmed by Mac [Ingersoll] looking significantly at Dan and then to Harry and saying, ‘Do you think we could go someplace—go back to your apartment, because Dan and I have something to say to you and Clare,’ Not ‘something to ask you and Clare,’but ‘something to say to you and Clare.’ ”

Back in the Luces’ apartment, her account continued, “Mac Ingersoll got up and began to walk around the room, and told Harry what a great editor he’d been and how well he handled Time magazine. . . . Poor Dan sat there, not saying a thing, squirming and looking miserable. Then Mac said: ‘Harry, you have got to make up your mind whether you are going to go on being a great editor, or whether you are going to be on a perpetual honeymoon. When you edited Time you stayed in the office until 10 and 11 o’clock every night. Now you catch the 5:10 back to the country; you clear out of that office at five o’clock every afternoon—' Now, mind you, we’d only been married less than a year! We’d only been married a very short while! And he said, ‘Clare, if she really loves you, won’t get in the way of the success of this magazine. And what I have to say to her is that you cannot publish a great magazine with one hand tied behind your back.’ ”

The message was as insulting as a custard pie in the face. The editors not only weren’t offering Clare Luce a job on Life, but Ingersoll, in a virtuoso display of effrontery, was chastising both Luces for an alleged crime of passion, the crime of letting their interest in each other come ahead of the needs of the new magazine.

Shocked and furious, Mrs. Luce waited for a moment to see if her husband had any response to Ingersoll’s absurd candor. Nothing happened; the sharp-tongued editor in chief, the most powerful young man in American publishing, the cold and difficult boss, the ardent bridegroom, was stunned to silence. His wife was not. “Mac,” she said to Ingersoll, “I have something to tell you, and I hope you’ll remember it and Harry will remember it. Harry Luce can publish a better magazine with one hand tied behind his back than you can publish with both of yours free—and both feet, too!”

Then, as she told Elson, “I got up and ran upstairs and had myself a little cry. It wasn’t that I was really counting on editing the magazine—I was certainly wise enough to see the difficulties with a husband and wife in the same office. In fact, I was sort of hoping I’d be in the position of saying, ‘I don’t think it’s the best thing.’ But before I could say anything, here I was being accused of ruining the magazine, ruining Harry—all the rest of it.” She added: “You know, this happened to me very often in the first two or three years.”

Luce followed her upstairs shortly thereafter. Her account of their conversation: “I said, ‘Well, what did you say to that?’ And he said, ‘Well, you know it would be an impossible situation considering the way they feel.’ I said, ‘Now, I’ll tell you—as long as you and I are married, I will never put foot in your office or ever intervene in any way whatsoever with your magazines.’ I think everyone would agree that that was a promise I kept—except in so far as I had some influence on Harry. ... I was profoundly hurt, and I said to Harry [about Ingersoll], ‘There’s something very wrong with a guy that would do that to a man who has just been married, and with no proof of any kind that I have been a drag on you.’ And then I was a little cross at Harry that he didn’t say something like, ‘After all, if Clare hadn’t sort of prodded me on this, there’d have been no magazine.’ ”

But Mrs. Luce was generous in her judgment of Luce’s strangely passive response to Ingersoll’s rebuke. “Maybe he felt,” she speculated about her husband’s behavior, “that [an angry defense] would further strengthen their position that it was all my conniving, because I wanted to edit the magazine, or something.”

So she did not carry the matter further, but said to him instead: “I’ve been hoping and thinking of how I could be the most help to you. But what is perfectly clear is that the way I can help you most is to set about my own business. And for some time now I’ve been thinking what I’d like to do is to write a play.” She did just that, dashed off a play in a few months, and it was favorably reviewed in color photographs by the new Life only weeks after publication began. The play was The Women, a clever and (for the times) venomous satire on the idle rich. With its all-female cast and its bitchy dialogue, it was a tremendous hit on Broadway, and made a million dollars. Then it traveled all over the world, twice became a successful movie, and made a whole lot more. So much for the positive uses of anger.

Just what led Luce to react to Ingersoll’s comments with such restraint can only be guessed. It is possible, of course, that Luce felt Ingersoll was right and decided on the spot that he had to drop such minor considerations as his wife’s future as an editor and work much harder on the new magazine. It is possible, too, that he thought, as he told his wife, that her position on Life would be impossible if her colleagues didn’t want her there. But there might also have been other reasons. Perhaps Luce really didn’t want his wife on the new magazine, didn’t dare say so to her in those honeymoon days, and was relieved and ready to use Ingersoll’s opposition to his own ends. Or perhaps he was angry about it at the time and just didn’t know what to do. His relationship with Ingersoll, who was a most considerable figure at Time Inc. in those days, deteriorated very rapidly over the next few years and culminated in Ingersoll’s departure in 1939.

The first editorial picture published inside Volume I, Number 1 of the new Life, dated November 23, 1936, showed a surgically

masked doctor in a crowded delivery room. He was holding a newborn male child upside down in his gloved hands. It was a full-page photograph (originallyconsidered and rejected as a possible cover), and the bold headline under it read, naturally: LIFE BEGINS. Next to that, the first Life caption hit the symbolism a little harder. “The camera,” it began, “records the most vital moment in any life: Its beginning. A few hours ago, the child lay restless in its mother’s womb. A second ago, its foetal life was rudely ended when the surgeon snipped its umbilical cord—through which the unborn child had drawn all existence from its mother. Then, for a second or two, the child hung lank and unbreathing between two lives. Its blood circulated and its heart beat only on the impetus given by its mother. Suddenly the baby’s new and independent life begins. He jerks up his arms, bends his knees and, with his first short breath, gives out a red-faced cry.”

There were moments in that last rush to publication when many of those involved must have felt lank and unbreathing, particularly the new managing editor, John Shaw Billings. Little more than two weeks before the final deadlines he wrote in his diary: “Because I am far behind on what Life is doing (and because Life itself is also far behind), I went to the office at 10 A.M.—and straight in to spend an hour with Luce. He made a speech to me on Life s principles and purposes, explained the departments, etc. My job is to pick up his ideas as quickly as possible—and carry them out without too much criticism. (I think Luce is damned smart—and I have little or no criticism of his ideas.) Longwell is ill with grippe—a sad circumstance because he is to initiate me into the Life personnel and machine. Back to my old office (I hate to swap it for Martin’s smaller one), looking over layouts and captions, to get acquainted with material in the works.”

The next entry read: “Tons of stuff were dumped on me. Martin came in, friendly and nice. Later we ate a sandwich lunch together in my office while he went over stories and ideas he had been working on and is now transferring to me. I had to see map-makers, see this or that thing, discuss the art schedule . . . go over the dummy and press schedule with Harry Luce and his brother Sheldon [Sheldon Luce, a younger brother, was generally well liked at Time Inc., briefly worked on the business side of the new Life, and left the company by his own choice in 1947]. . . . Everything was rush and confusion and nothing was really accomplished. Longwell is still home sick—which puts a crimp in everything. . . . F. came down at 6 in the car. We dined at Schrafft’s and went across to the Plaza to see Fredric March in Anthony Adverse (I’ve never read the book—so it was all new to me). Pretty good, though very long.”

Other entries as the pressure built: “My life on Life is now too full for more than notes here. ... So many people in and out of my office that I could not settle down to real work. . . . Luce gave a Cloud Club lunch to talk about problems—& jumped on Longwell for butting in with his ideas. Layouts & captions. I’ll go crazy trying to do them. . . .” “Starting things but never getting time to finish them. I can’t remember all I did, but I was steadily busy. Layouts and talks with Luce. He is being very nice and treats me well.” “We lack a good opening story—a smash! And then BourkeWhite’s pictures of Whoopee at Fort Peck came in, as if in answer to our prayer. Now the first issue is all set!”

The Margaret Bourke-White story (her famous photograph of the Fort Peck Dam was also Life’s first cover) was one of the very few items Billings didn’t have a lot to do with. Actually the already illustrious Bourke-White, who had started work on Life a couple of months earlier, had been sent off to try to get some good material on WPA projects in the Northwest. Longwell, back at work after his grippe, wired her: “Have you got good Fort Peck night life pictures? . . . Up against it for party department first issue. Fort Peck might be swell. If necessary go back there and take more.”

Bourke-White replied: “Think Peck night life will be very good. Have several bar scenes, crowd watching bowling, billiards, taxi dancers at work, two or three hard-won snaps of prostitutes, also exteriors their establishments, also famous Ruby Smith with her boy friends, also typical shanty-town orchestra, also assorted drunks. Films due Monday. . . .” Luce warned Longwell in a memo that he would be waiting specially to see those pictures and wrote: “. . . pray God your idea and Bourke-White’s camera agree!” That they did, better than anyone had expected, was of course a bit of extra good fortune for the weary editors. But it was really more than that. The rawboned BourkeWhite story about those Americans in a Montana construction town set a standard that would last as long as the magazine did. Whatever its preoccupations with royalty, politics, the high and low jinks of the famous, whatever its contributions to the understanding of art, science, and the past, Life’s greatest resource for its best picture stories would always be the lives of ordinary people, their work, their pleasure, their follies, their anguish. Such stories touched virtually every reader.

Billings’s diary entry for November 11:“. . . Luce deep in thought on the introduction. . . . Lunch with him on Vol. I., No. 2. He gets all the ideas, makes all the decisions. I have contributed practically no original ideas to the magazine so far. ... I made some layouts but Luce went into a brown study and remade them completely. I don’t know how to do it to satisfy him; it is pretty discouraging.”

The entry for November 12, right on the final deadlines: “F. came down at 6:30. We dined at Schrafft’s and went to the Plaza to see Gary Cooper in The General Died At Dawn—a Chinese warlord picture.

. . .” Few of the top editors who followed Billings over the years would have things well enough in hand on closing nights to go out to a relatively early dinner and then to a movie. However he complained in the diaries, he seemed a miracle of order and efficiency to those who worked with him.

Whatever its significance in the history of magazine journalism, Volume I, Number 1 of Life was very much a grab bag—lots of stories, lots of pictures strung together without much discernible order. And although everyone had thought and struggled desperately hard to arrive at the decisions necessary to bring the magazine out, it looked in some places as if decisions hadn’t been made. That first Life had the quality of an album jammed with snapshots that the collector couldn’t bear to throw away. Its look was earnest, amateurish, and cluttered, its tone was variously wide-eyed, sentimental, smartalecky, smug, and foolish. Quite possibly, of course, these were just the qualities that in some magical, quite indefinable mix (though Luce and his editors spent the next forty years trying to isolate, define, and capture the recipe) would guarantee Life’s immediate and long-lasting success.

Of course, the first editors of Life tried, as all their descendants did, too, to make the issue appear as if it had been put together with some sort of purpose in mind. “Having been unable to prevent Bourke-White from running away with their first nine pages,” they wrote in the introduction, “the Editors thereafter returned to the job of making pictures behave with some degree of order and sense. So there follow, not far apart, two regular departments: Life On The American Newsfront, and the President’s Album. The first is a selection of the most newsworthy snaps made anywhere in the U.S. by the mighty picture-taking organization of the U.S. press. The President’s Album is a kind of picture diary—a special focus on the personality-center of the nation’s life. Luckily for Life, it can start its diary with a President who is a marvelous camera actor and is not above demonstrating his art.”

“So strong is the President’s hold on the attention of the people,” went the editors’ essay, “that a hint from him is enough to bring even South America crashing into the headlines. South America is the continent Americans ought to be most interested in, and usually just plain won’t be. But a month ago Life decided to do its duty and be interested—a duty which turned out to be surprisingly easy to take. This week, Brazil. Next week, The Argentine.”

“On looking over what happened to the issue,” the introduction galumphed clumsily on, “the Editors are particularly pleased that Art is represented not by some artfully promoted Frenchman but by an American, and that the Theater is here in the person of an American lady who is being called the world’s greatest actress. Hollywood’s No. 1 Screen Lover is also here due to sheer coincidence of release dates. But that he is an American, is inevitable.”

The Americans Luce was referring to in that first introduction were John Steuart Curry, the Kansas artist perhaps best known for his painting of a farm family fleeing an onrushing tornado, the actress Helen Hayes, and Robert Taylor, the newest male movie idol. The story on Curry was admiring and included four pages of his paintings in color; Luce had been determined from the beginning to use these big magazine pages for displays of art, and these became a staple of Life. The story on Robert Taylor, too, modeled thousands of movie stories to come. It included childhood pictures of Taylor and poked mild fun at his real name (Spangler Arlington Brugh). It also pictured him wearing a toga and headband in an early, unsuccessful screen test after which Sam Goldwyn advised him to “Go home and fatten up.” By 1936 Taylor had made it as a star, and the story described him working with Greta Garbo in the filming of Camille. But the captions showed efforts not to be too admiring. “In his first love scene rehearsal with Garbo,” one read, “Taylor was so nervous that he allowed her to slip from his arms to the floor. But Garbo treated him much less like a schoolboy than she has some of her 16 previous leading men and by the time the scene above was shot, Taylor had acquired the confidence needed to carry her safely to a divan.” This would be the mocking tone of countless captions about movies and movie people.

The piece on Helen Hayes, on the other hand, was an absolute gush headlined “GREATEST LIVING ACTRESS.” The text was so respectful in its celebration of her starring as the lead in Victoria Regina, in fact, that it neglected to mention the author of the play (Laurence Housman), and the opening text block ended with words calculated to touch the coldest heart. “The story of her private life,” it throbbed, “is as plain and happy as she is plain and great. She had a mother to fashion her childhood. She met her man. She had her child. Turn the next page and see all three.”

The story on Brazil is, by contrast, both condescending and contemptuous. “Brazilians are charming people,” the reader of this five-page article was advised, “but are incurably lazy. The original Portuguese conquistadors did not bring their wives, married Indian aborigines, and their descendants added the blood of Negro slaves to the strain. The mixture did not work.” Such racist comment was, of course, common in respectable American journals of the time. But it had a flip quality that was particularly characteristic of Time Inc. writing of the period, a sort of showoff stunting in which the writer rather wearily slapped his subject across the face with sentences such as “Loafing through the 100° heat of the upper Amazon River Basin are the Indian women and children above, who sling their hammocks between trees to avoid crawling snakes and small animals and keep in the shade.”

Much of the writing, though, was less smug than that, and some of it, notably by Archibald MacLeish (who was then an editor at Fortune) to go with Bourke-White’s Montana pictures, matched the plain tone of the good photographs and somehow enhanced them. “For $2 a month,” wrote MacLeish about a new town near the Fort Peck Dam, “you can rent a fifty foot lot in Wheeler from Joe Frazier, the barber over in Glasgow, 20 miles away. Joe had the fool luck to homestead the worthless land on which shanty towns have sprouted. You then haul in a load of grocer’s boxes, tin cans, crazy doors and building paper and knock your shack together. That will set you back $40 to $75 more. You then try to live in it in weather that can hit minus 50° one way and plus 110° the other.”

“The pioneer mother,” he wrote in closing the story, “can trek in broken-down Fords as well as in covered wagons. And she can crack her hands in the alkali water of 1936 as well as in the alkali water of 1849. When the Fort Peck project opened in 1933 the roads of Montana began to rattle with second-hand cars full of children, chairs, mattresses and tired women. Most of them kept right on rattling toward some other hopeless hope. Some of them parked in the shanty towns around Fort Peck. There, their women passengers got jobs like washerwoman Mrs. Nelson (right) who washes [the town of] New Deal without running water, or tried their feet at taxi-dancing like the girls on the preceding pages, or made money like [the madam] Ruby Smith on page 15, or gave birth to children in zero weather in a crowded 8 by 16-foot shack like many an unnamed woman of New Deal and Wheeler. . . . The group on the right, it will be noticed, resembles a statue recently erected to the Pioneer Mother of the old frontier. No statues are expected at New Deal.” MacLeish’s spare writing was much the best in the issue, and it set an unflorid style that many writers on Life would try to follow in the years ahead.

Much of the rest of the issue was a hodgepodge of almost random pictures of the famous or simply notorious—of Eugene O’Neill, James Farley, Winston Churchill, Benito Mussolini and his son-in-law Count Ciano, actresses Myrna Loy and Ina Claire, William Powell, and Peggy Hopkins Joyce, a much-married woman of the time who was announcing her engagement, a fact noteworthy, the caption advised, “because it is the first time Miss Joyce has been engaged to an astrophysicist.” Almost certainly because of Luce’s fascination with most matters Chinese, there was a fluffy little story shot by Alfred Eisenstaedt about a Catholic school for Chinese children (“slant-eyed and shy”) in San Francisco, a school where they were taught “to say very instead of velly, to distinguish he from she.” There were miscellaneous items on shootings, awful deaths, high altitude weather, and a wonderfully gallant interview with a naval officer named Earl Winfield Spencer. He had once been married to Wallis Warfield Simpson, the lady from Baltimore whose love the King of England was finding better than a throne.

A half-page story showed a one-legged mountain climber, and among the advertisements was one for the Des Moines Register and Tribune, touting the paper’s good news photographs. The picture in the ad showed the capture of two members of the infamous Barrow (Bonnie and Clyde) gang. Part of the hard-selling caption: “Notice the animal snarl on the face of the captured girl. Her lover sits wounded at the right.” And the text of the first “Life Goes to a Party” pointed out, as did so many that followed, in what fine company the lucky reader was traveling. “French hunting parties are hard to crash,” one caption declared. “If the Comtesse Jacques de Rohan-Chabot (above) is a guest, you are at one of the most exclusive affairs in France.”

But the story that Life’s first editors appeared to take special pleasure in was a two-page item simply called BLACK WIDOW. A modest report about the arachnid of that name, it had appeared in the dummies and was the first nature story of thousands in which Life’s editors would get their anthropomorphic kicks—and give the readers theirs. Over the years the magazine’s subscribers would again and again demonstrate the fact that they were often more interested in animals than they were in people. Especially when the creatures were in trouble—or might be dangerous.

All 250,000 newsstand copies of Vol. I. No. 1 sold out the first day. The dealer in Cleveland, where 300 copies had been sent, telegraphed Time Inc.’s circulation office: “Life sold out first hour, could sell 5000 more.” “Life sold out by 12 noon,” read the wire from Lansing, Michigan, where 325 copies had been placed. “Make order 1000 next week.” From Los Angeles came the word: “First issue of Life caused heaviest demand in Hollywood and L.A. of any publication ever known. Clean sell-out. We lost thousands of sales and still a heavy demand. Please, please increase numbers of copies for next issue.” “Be a good fellow,” was the message from Boston, “and see if you can’t get up more copies. . . .”

The cry was the same everywhere—from Seattle, Denver, New Orleans, Buffalo came the urgent word that interest in the new magazine far outran the early guesses. Dealers all over the country wanted to increase their orders by as much as 500 percent. When they were told that this was impossible, many accused Luce’s men of creating a controlled scarcity with Life, a scarcity they could use to force dealers to take more copies of Time in order to get enough of the hot new item. This was not the case; the capacity of the makeshift presses was simply not up to a huge immediate increase. But production techniques improved very rapidly. Within three months, the presses at the R. R. Donnelley plant in Chicago were turning out one million copies a week. By the end of the first year of publication, Life’s circulation had reached 1.5 million. That still wasn’t big enough for the demand, but the scarcity had to be controlled, largely in an effort to manage the great losses (at least $5 million that first year) caused by the fact that advertisers were paying rates based on a much smaller readership.

Looking back years later on the near catastrophic success of his venture, Luce said: “Of course, I didn’t really intend to lose all that money, but then on the other hand I had to sort of pretend I had intended to, otherwise all my friends would have thought I was a dope.”

Billings continued his practice of writing in his journal, and two months after the launching of the new magazine he had this to say: “The papers came out with the Time salary lists—a New Deal release from Washington. Mine $25,480, Luce $43,000, Larsen $39,000, lngersoll $20,000, Martin $33,640. When I told Luce they were out, he said they were really modest. . . . He asked me to a business luncheon of Life in the Cloud Club. . . . The talk was new and interesting to me: Life lost $800,000 in 1936. It will lose $2,000,000 in 1937. In 1938 it will make $3,000,000, thus balancing the loss. . . . Time’s paper cost $88 a ton, ours nearly $250 (and we use much more). New methods may bring down this paper cost a little. 1937 budget: $9 million income, $11 million production cost. Circulation will go to 1,000,000 by April 1; to 1,300,000 by Jan. 1. Sadler thinks he will get plenty of advertising. He’s got 1000 pages signed up for this year, 400 more promised. He needs 2000 in 1938 to show a profit. ... I did a little advance work—and home by 7.”

Luce soon became involved in the first of his many re-examinations of Life. It was as if he felt that the only way he could trap and preserve the mysterious elements that made the magazine work was to attempt a sort of dissection of the beast, as if rational dismemberment would produce a sensible, fail-safe formula for continuing success. In a fifteenpage confidential memorandum entitled “REDEFINITION” and written in March of 1937, he said: “Twelve issues of Life having come and gone, I have re-read the Original Prospectus. It makes more sense to me today than when it was written. That, I think, is both surprising and hopeful.”

He then proceeded to pick through the magazine, department by department, studying it in light of the definitions laid down in the prospectus. For example, he wrote of the magazine’s main news story in pictures: “The Lead: I felt uncertain about this prior to Vol. I, No. 1, and I continued to be unhappy about it for eight or ten weeks. But now I feel it is okay, practical, manageable, definable. The Lead is what the Prospectus calls ‘The Big News-Picture Story of the Week.’ ”

He seemed quite pleased and confident about the prospects for one other area of Life’s editorial output. And it was an area where, as the magazine developed over the years, its most penetrating and affecting pieces of picture journalism would appear. “The Feature,” Luce wrote. “At the risk of being misunderstood, my comment on this is that it’s a cinch—there’s nothing to it—nothing except a crack photographer, which means nothing much for the Managing Editor as such to worry about. Here is where you get that ‘pure pictorial journalism’ that the picture-fanatics love. . . . What I mean is this: You can pick practically any damn human or sub-human institution or phenomenon under the sun, turn a crack photographer on it (after a little lecture by a journalist) and publish with pleasure in eight pages the resultant photographic essay. Fifty or twenty years ago, people used to write ‘essays’ for magazines. Essays for example on the bee. The essay is no longer a vital means of communication. But what is vital is the photographic essay. [The story on] Vassar, of course, is the best case in point. It is not a solid Time or Fortune-like account of that institution. It leaves mountains to be written about education in general and Vassar in particular. It is not an account of Vassar. It is a delightful essay on Vassar. But it is vital. It does communicate. Both to those who know about girls’ colleges and to those who do not, it tells something about Vassar and America and Life in 1937. And it tells the kind of thing which only the most skillful (and now obsolete) literary essayists have hitherto managed to tell in words.”

For all his lack of sophistication about this picture form of journalism, Luce sensed the enormous power his new magazine would generate, and he wanted to make sure that he and his editors agreed about what Life was and what it stood for. Under the heading “EMOTION,” Luce wrote: “Life has a bias. (Life is in favor of the human race, and is hopeful. Life likes life.) Life is quicker to point with pride than to view with alarm. At some later time I will try to explain to myself why this is necessarily so. For the present, let it be acknowledged that this is inevitably Life’s bias so that it may not be thwarted or inhibited.” To the end of his own life, Luce felt exactly that way about the proper bias for his picture magazine. Around 1960, speaking in some dismay about a story in which Life had been both aggressive and wrong, Luce told Ralph Graves, who later became the magazine’s last managing editor: “I always thought it was the business of Time to make enemies—and of Life to make friends.”

(For thirty-six years after its spectacular beginnings, Life made and kept millions of friends as well as millions of dollars, became a mass journal of truly extraordinary influence, and maintained its mostly hopeful bias until the implacable power of television and the fortunes of business laid it to rest in 1972.)